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House of Commons

Tuesday 1 April 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): What progress has been made on the competition to establish eco-towns. [197682]

The Minister for Housing (Caroline Flint): Before the House rises for the recess, I will publish a shortlist of the locations that we believe have the best potential to be eco-towns and which will go forward for further assessment and public consultation. Later this year, we will announce up to 10 locations that we are satisfied meet our criteria.

Mr. Jones: In the selection of sites of eco-towns, will my right hon. Friend take into account the needs of existing communities to expand and regenerate, and resist attempts by organisations such as UK Coal to use eco-towns as a way of exploiting their existing land bank, which in some cases will affect the expansion of existing communities?

Caroline Flint: It is essential that the proposals for eco-towns not only meet high environmental standards but recognise where they sit in relation to other communities, particularly those that we seek to regenerate. It is also essential that they do not become simply commuter-belt communities, but have an identity of their own that includes homes, infrastructure and employment within the communities.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that neither she nor the Secretary of State will entertain as suitable to go on the shortlist those sites that are no more than reheated and previously rejected or withdrawn applications? She will know, as will the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), of the case in my constituency involving the Co-op, which has sought for the third time to build on its 5,000-acre farming estate. It withdrew its application in 1992 and tried again in 1996 with a sustainable urban extension. Will she confirm that this reheated application system should not be permitted?

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Caroline Flint: We are certainly not interested in any reheated plans. For the next phase of consultation, it is important that we look at the locations that have the potential to be sites for eco-towns and that they undergo cross-government scrutiny, with advice from the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Highways Agency and others. It is important that we scrutinise the proposals in more depth to ensure that they fit the bill, and that is laid out clearly in the prospectus that we produced last year.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Will the Minister give an assurance that in the next phase to which she has just referred there will be an adequate opportunity for neighbouring local authorities to express their very real concerns about the potential effect of eco-towns on transport and regeneration?

Caroline Flint: Yes, we want local authorities and communities to look further into issues regarding infrastructure and transport, both in terms of getting from one place to another and reducing the reliance on the car by providing more sustainable transport options for those who will eventually live in the communities.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): From the constructive and good-natured debate that I had on development in Aylesbury Vale with the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), in Westminster Hall on 4 December, the Minister of State should be in no doubt that I am an enthusiast for sustainable development, including new housing which we need. Will she, however, accept it from me that the proposed impost in the minds of some of 5,000 new homes in Little Horwood in my constituency would represent a disproportional and unjust burden? If she chooses to trifle with the people of Little Horwood and to bite them, I can assure her that they will bite back.

Caroline Flint: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support in recognising that new homes have to be part of the future and that we need to build more. Part of the scrutiny for the eco-towns is to look at the housing supply and the housing need in the local communities where they will be placed, and we will look into that in great depth. One of the priorities for locations is housing need, and we cannot duck that because this is about homes for people who cannot get on the housing ladder and have a home of their choosing.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees that the amount of research that the Government have done into the development of eco-homes eclipses anything that we might expect from our opponents. Does she agree that the new homes entail a 40 per cent. reduction in energy use? Crucially for the British economy, those homes will also provide significant employment opportunities and opportunities to gain funding from countries such as China, because we will export that investment.

Caroline Flint: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is involved in engineering—she is an eminent engineer—and who always looks for opportunities to support that profession. She is right: homes built today
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are 40 per cent. more efficient than those built a few years ago. Our aim through eco-towns and other approaches is to capitalise on the skills, ideas and innovation in this country to build homes and provide jobs and be a potent force for overseas export and investment back into this country.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Airport infrastructure in the United Kingdom is a subject of much interest. Is the Minister aware that small airports and airfields around the UK provide an important sub-infrastructure and that many business people use them? Will she provide an assurance that airfields such as Leicester airport and others will not be regarded as easy targets on which to build eco-towns, given that they are important parts of the infrastructure of the communities that they serve and are significant generators of wealth in the areas that they serve?

Caroline Flint: I declare an interest, because there is a growing airport in my constituency. It is very successful, and there has been house building and job creation as a result of that investment. I will not be drawn into specifics because, as I have said, I will publish the shortlist of locations before the House rises. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that all factors in relation to eco-towns, including transport infrastructure, other amenities in the local area and the use of brownfield sites, are part of the mix, which we will study further to see what more we can get out of developers and to ensure that developers are meeting our exacting benchmarks.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): On 4 March, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), told us that an announcement was imminent. Why has there been a delay, and why has it taken almost a month for the proposals to be published? Is the delay not a sign of the disarray in the Minister’s Department, which has ignored the need for proper infrastructure planning, failed to carry local support and even advanced proposals for sites that have already been rejected by planners? Will eco-towns join the growing list of botched projects, such as Thames Gateway and pathfinder?

Caroline Flint: Well, I do not know about reheated plans, but those are reheated Tory arguments. Behind the attacks on eco-towns, which is what this is really about, is a fundamental attack on the need to build more homes. We have not built new towns for 40 years. Of course infrastructure is important, which is why we are introducing the community infrastructure levy, the community infrastructure fund and all the proposals that will go through to the next round. There will be much closer scrutiny involving local authorities, Departments and other agencies to see what more we can get from those bidders to deliver on infrastructure. A community is not a community without infrastructure, and those eco-towns will show how it can be done well and how they can be the best.

Housing (Bournemouth)

2. Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): What the housing targets for Bournemouth over the next 10 years are; and how they were decided. [197683]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): The panel report into the draft regional spatial strategy for the south-west recommends an overall net increase in dwellings for Bournemouth of 16,100 for the period 2006 to 2026. That is the recommendation of the panel based on evidence submitted to and discussed at the examination in public held between 17 April and 6 July 2007. The panel’s recommendations are currently before the Secretary of State for consideration.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful for that reply, but it does not give the full picture. It is interesting that the Minister for Housing, who has just sat down, said that a community is not a community without infrastructure. The numbers of houses that the Under-Secretary has just read out will be built in Bournemouth with no investment in rail services, schools, hospitals or the fire service—as the Under-Secretary knows, there has been a 1 per cent. increase for the fire service. How can we continue to cram houses into Bournemouth unitary authority, which is already building 600 new dwellings every single year, without creating slums for the future?

Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Gentleman needs to have a closer dialogue with his local authority, which asked for the regional spatial strategy to include between 680 and 780 homes a year and which is currently building at a rate of more than 1,000 completions a year. Bearing that in mind, the hon. Gentleman would be best off working with the local authority to help to ensure that his local community gets the infrastructure that goes with those houses, and I am sure that that is possible.

Rough Sleepers

3. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): What recent estimate she has made of the number of rough sleepers in each local authority area. [197684]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): An estimate of the number of rough sleepers in England is published every September. It is based on the results of local authority street counts in areas with a known or suspected rough sleeping problem. The 2007 estimate indicated there were 498 people sleeping rough on any one night, which is a 73 per cent. reduction on the 1998 baseline.

Ms Keeble: I am grateful for that response. The success of the rough sleepers programme means that there are only eight rough sleepers in Northamptonshire. However, will the Minister explain why we are spending a total of £5 million of public money emptying a 66-unit three-storey block of flats to provide a centre for those eight rough sleepers in a part of my constituency that has a pressing need for accommodation for homeless families? Does he not think that there should be a better balance between the needs of homeless families with children and the needs of rough sleepers?

Mr. Wright: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s hard work on housing and homelessness in Northampton. I greatly enjoyed my visit to her constituency a couple of weeks ago.

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On the specific point that my hon. Friend raised, I understand that the proposed Robinson house, as part of the £160 million Places of Change funding, will help homeless people in her constituency to seek access to education and training. I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend by saying that the grant, which totals £1.4 million for Northampton borough council, will not be drawn down until my Department is satisfied with the integrity of the scheme. I will keep a close eye on it, and I encourage my hon. Friend to do so as well.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): We are all very concerned about rough sleepers. However, should the Government not also be tackling the long-term problems of family breakdown and drug and alcohol dependence? Should they not be doing more about those issues?

Mr. Wright: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, we spent yesterday in the House discussing the Housing and Regeneration Bill, including the creation of the Homes and Communities Agency and the need for 3 million new homes by 2020 as a result of family breakdown. That is exactly what this country needs, yet the hon. Gentleman’s party is opposing the Bill. I would have thought that he would support the housing Bill that this country needs and deserves.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend look into how councils are not counting rough sleepers? In fact, all the evidence goes to show that they work around the town and away from where rough sleepers actually sleep. What will he do to ensure that we get the true number of rough sleepers in each local authority area? After that, what can we do to ensure that local people in desperate need on the streets get into accommodation with heating?

Mr. Wright: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. I have received parliamentary questions from him on this very important point. His hard work on this issue is probably at odds with his local authority’s.

My hon. Friend mentioned methodology, which is an important point. I will ensure that we continue to have robust data on the number of people sleeping rough. However, I should point out that before 1998 there was no measurement of rough sleeping levels and the Conservative party attached no importance to the issue. The current methodology has been applied consistently for a decade and shows a sharp reduction in the number of people sleeping rough. Furthermore, the methodology is backed up by the independent National Audit Office.

Listed Buildings

4. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): What account she takes of listed building status in planning policy guidance. [197685]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): Government policy on planning and the historic environment is set out in planning policy guidance note 15, which highlights the need for effective protection of the historic environment, including
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listed buildings, as a central part of our cultural heritage and sense of national identity. Tomorrow, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will publish the first heritage protection Bill in 30 years. It will give listed buildings greater protection, encourage greater public involvement in decisions and create a single, unified heritage protection regime.

Mr. Turner: I thank the right hon. Lady for her answer. Is she aware that sites such as High Down on the West Wight currently have protection by dint of being sites of special scientific interest, but are not listed? What extra protection, for instance, would the listing of the structure at High Down—a quarter of a mile long concrete ramp for rockets—bring to the site?

Hazel Blears: I scratched my head when I saw the hon. Gentleman’s question. I thought that he might ask about Osborne house or any of the 1,900 listed buildings on the Isle of Wight; the island has more than its fair share of beautiful buildings. Clearly, the listed building regime is a key consideration in planning applications, and PPG15 says that local authorities must have particular regard to where there are listed buildings. Clearly, there is a process to undergo for areas that are not listed. As I said, tomorrow my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will publish a draft Bill that will seek to improve the process for listing areas. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will take a great interest in that.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): A large number of the listed buildings in my area have thatched roofs. That poses real problems for owners, not only because of the cost of replacing a roof but because there is a shortage of the appropriate cereal straw to do it. Will the right hon. Lady issue guidance to stop the inflexibility of many planners, who require an absolute like-for-like replacement of thatches instead of using the available material, which is visually impossible to distinguish from the original?

Hazel Blears: Goodness, it is amazing what one learns in the Chamber; certainly, I have learned something today. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about ensuring that the planning system retains its flexibility but at the same time seeks to protect the cultural and architectural heritage that is so important in this country. I think he will agree that getting the balance right is important. I had no idea that there were different colours of thatch, or perhaps different shades of thatching; I am now better informed, and I will look into it myself.

Ordnance Survey

5. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): What the respective responsibilities of the shareholder and client Ministers for Ordnance Survey are. [197686]

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